Somm Sex Scandal: Wine's Me-Too Moment

Female somms have had to deal with abuse from customers and from within their own ranks.
© iStock | Female somms have had to deal with abuse from customers and from within their own ranks.
An over-the-top abuser gets vilified in a reveal that is only the tip of the iceberg.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Tuesday, 03-Nov-2020

The hospitality business has always been a dirty place. That was even before Mario Battali got busted and it was revealed that there was a "rape room" at the Spotted Pig, one of New York's trendiest restaurants.

The amount of young people who have historically kept restaurants, bars and hotels humming mixed with long hours and massive drug and alcohol abuse have not added up to a pretty picture. The Kitchen Confidential culture that raged in dining rooms across the country has long kept a happy face on a nasty reality even after Anthony Bourdain stopped shooting up and became a big proponent of women's rights.

Related stories:
Whiskey's Sexism Row Misses a Trick
Somm Cheat Probe Going Nowhere
Sexism Sparks Token Wine Gestures

As one extremely abusive Master Sommelier – Geoff Kruth – has gotten torn apart by a dozen ambitious women pursuing one of the top ranks in the wine world, the rest of us in the industry are just waiting for what comes next. None of the women he abused have – sadly – finished their Master Sommelier degree.

In response to these concerns, the 27 female Canadian and American Master Sommeliers are about to release their own statement later today to the public. A subsequent one will follow later to the board of the Court of Master Sommeliers, according to Catherine Fallis, the founder of the San Francisco-based Planet Grape consulting firm.

The statement, she adds will be "an apology letter to the survivors along with specific demands of changes we need made". She notes that these changes include transparency, investigations, putting an anonymous hotline for women who have been victims of harassment on the front page of the Court's website, and a delay in elections of the Court's board of directors.

The background to the story

Kruth – as reported in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle among other publications – was beyond a lowlife: touching women's breasts and sticking his hands down their pants when saying goodnight. He bragged about who he expected to bed at different events and had the temerity to send Rachel Van Til, an advanced level sommelier, who is the lead sommelier at the Club at Houston Oaks in Texas, a Facebook message asking her which oral sex position she preferred.

Since these accusations came to light, he has resigned from the Court. "There is a cronyism in the Court that dictates that you have to make friends with people in order to get invited to tastings. You have to be in the right circles," shared Van Til.

However, while few want to name names, he is hardly the only one to have abused his position of power as a male Master Sommelier, a restaurant owner, or a major wholesaler. The hospitality industry's top women are now joining forces to make sure that this type of abuse stops and that women feel comfortable talking about – and preventing – inappropriate and sexually manipulative behavior to which they have been subjected.

Van Til thinks that the three Somm documentaries – released in 2012, 2015 and 2018 respectively, and detailing the tough road to obtaining the degree – have made matters worse. Some of the offensive men in question, "went from being internal rock stars to actively behaving like them". She adds that "being idolized, worshipped and untouchable makes them feel more powerful".

She referenced President Trump’s "grab 'em by the pussy" comment and said the same was true for ill-behaved men in the wine business. "When you have the power, they let you do it. That is Jeff's MO."

Catherine Fallis MS says a statement is due out today from the female Mss at the Court.
© Texas Grace Photography | Catherine Fallis MS says a statement is due out today from the female Mss at the Court.

An old, old story

Speaking to women – many of them in their 20s – about what they have gone through in pursuit of a valuable degree and a respected place in the wine industry opened up a box of bad memories that I had long locked away.

The number of hotel keys dropped alongside credit cards to pay checks that I collected as a 23-year-old waitress at a busy New York restaurant near Wall Street in the 1980s. The promotions I didn't get at the same restaurant because the manager was sleeping with other waitresses and not me.

As a journalist I have been lucky enough to occupy an often lofty and protected place in the business. However it was not insulated enough for me to have avoided legions of blow-job jokes throughout dinners and interviews when I was in my 20s. Nor did it save me from having a handful of executives on panel I moderated one Sunday morning say in front of dozens of people that "they had spent Sunday morning with Liza".

My male editor and boss at the time did nothing to silence them, just as I was not able to do anything when one of my 25-year-old editors came back from Texas in tears saying she would never travel without me. She had been harassed by wine shop clerks so brutally at a conference – they followed her up to her room and banged on the door all night – that I established a sexual harassment awareness program at the publishing house on the spot.

Where to from here?

I was surprised that more than a dozen Master Sommeliers to whom I reached out to for this story declined to comment. Most of them were female but some of them were male; both those not accused and not involved with this bad behavior. We all need to speak out about this if we are going to change things.

"This is shocking," shares Gillian Balance, a Master Sommelier and education manager at Treasury Wine Estates. However, another female MS adds that while this type of behavior has been ongoing for a period of time, it rarely happened in front of other MSs, which is something that demands change. She added that she was forced to give up her dream career because of a sexual harassment complaint that she had to file.

"Those in a position of privilege have to speak out," notes Van Til. Insightfully she adds that "those who may not get another job may not be able to speak out". So she adds that women in the wine and hospitality industry need to step up as female mentors, echoing Fallis' words.

There is clearly a level of guilt filtering down through the ranks of the female Master Sommeliers, who are asking themselves what they could have done to prevent this and how they need to change up the game up moving forward. I am sure it inspired the hours of conference calls over the weekend and the statement that will shortly come out. "The solution is to have women at the gate, on the board and at every exam," shared Fallis.

Almost all the women I spoke to said that the issue of sexual abuse exploded this past week because of how the Court of Master Sommeliers handled both the cheating scandal and how it addressed the Black Lives Matter Movement. When documents where sent to those pursuing the MS degree, notifying them about the cheating scandal, many women thought they were going to address sexual harassment.

"We were all so horrified by the way that the Black Lives Matter issue was handled, as all of us feel strongly about making space for women and people of  color," shares Van Til. "It felt like lip service," she adds.

In its usually non-forthcoming style, the Court of Master Sommeliers would not provide Wine-Searcher with any new perspectives or comments. They suggested I use the same statements that have been bandied around by several publications.

"We were disheartened to hear that candidates and students in our community felt powerless to speak up. The CMS-A is making strides to address this power dynamic and now offers a safe way to report misconduct without fear of retribution," shared Devon Broglie, a Master Sommelier who is the chairman of the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Americas.

He adds: "The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas applauds the courage of those who have spoken up … as it shines a light on an area where the organization can hold its members more accountable to the mission of excellence in hospitality."

Perhaps Van Til sums up best what those out of the loop in the industry need to do first to move forward: "Be able to look me in the eye and say whatever I have experienced is not OK."

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